It’s an early start on Saturday morning for Dad and I, after the Syracuse game the night before we manage a few hours of shuteye at the Marriott Residence Inn before piling into the car at 6am for the three hour jaunt down to West Point. With an early noon kickoff looming, we have to hit the road early enough to spend a few hours exploring the fabled grounds of the United States Military Academy campus. The sunrise drive is exhausting, as a thick blanket of fog covers the highway and scattered showers pelt the windshield. A quick look at the ominous grey skies is confirmed by my Weather Channel app, and it portends a lousy forecast for the afternoon. With no cloud break in sight we’ll be in for a soggy adventure.
The same errant storms had swept through the midwest last night, grounding planes and stranding my friend Bryce in Chicago. With plans to attend his 15 year reunion at West Point, this weekend was a homecoming for him, and with a handful of his fellow ring bearing classmates coming into town for the game, it would have offered a rare inside tour of the USMA campus from a group of graduates. Ponchos dutifully packed, we’d have to brave the campus alone while Bryce texted suggestions remotely, a captive in O’Hare airport.
Approaching the gates at West Point, it’s quickly evident that this isn’t your normal college football environment. A guard in BDU’s waves us through the checkpoint terminal after an obligatory glance at the Jetta, and we wind through the rocky, wooded hillside approaching campus. Humvees and massive military transport trucks line the roads at key intersections, funneling vehicles into the game day areas while the MP’s direct traffic, their fluorescent yellow vests contrasting with the dark camo uniforms beneath. Bob’s parking pass, which he generously bestowed the night before, grants us access in the “C” lot, and we pull into an easy parking space within eyesight of Michie Stadium, a welcome change from my usual far flung free parking antics.
Boarding a shuttle bus that the Academy runs for visitors on gamedays, it winds further down the hill into the main campus, before dropping us at the drill field – a flat green expanse flanked by bleachers where cadets will spend hundreds of hours in formation during their four year stint here. From there we wander the campus, at least those portions of it that are open to the public, as cadets are posted throughout the area providing strict yet courteous directions on where the general public is permitted to go. Even for a coarse civilian slob draped in a giant green poncho like me, they answer each question with a curt, respectful “sir” at the end.
Statues and traditions abound at West Point, none of which I’ll do even remote justice to here, but suffice to say a “who’s who” of the most influential American leaders since the American Revolution have passed through these storied walls, many of them enshrined in bronze and spread throughout campus. Arguably, no other “college” in the world has had such far reaching impact on the landscape of the modern world as the leaders that have graduated from West Point – aka “the long gray line”. We pass by a figure of George Patton standing watchfully in front of the USMA library, an inside joke from what I understand, since George was a notoriously lax student during his time here. I find Eisenhower and Douglas McArthur posted around the drill field, as well as a giant statue of George Washington mounted on his horse pointing out over the Hudson River beyond.
The dining hall is a spectacle itself, an incredible stone hall befitting a Harry Potter film set, as oak paneling covers the walls while flags and insignia hang from the rafters. They feed five thousand cadets and staff three squares a day in these walls, all within a one hour time frame – which is quite a logistical feat. The tables arranged neatly in each of the wings, they are all numbered for each Company, as each Cadet eats with their assigned group.
From there we make our way to Trophy Point, a perch on the edge of campus overlooking a strategic bend in the Hudson River. As one of the only natural choke points in the Hudson, a critical lifeline during the Revolutionary War, West Point occupies incredibly valuable real estate from a military perspective. Whomever was able to secure this ground, could control the Hudson, hence the historical significance of the Continental Army building the first fort here and defending it so vigorously. Today, Trophy Point serves as a collection ground of cannons from every significant military conflict since the Revolutionary War and offers a splendid view up the Hudson River valley.
As kickoff looms, we wind back up the hill towards Michie Stadium, stopping for a visit at the Chapel – a soaring stone tribute to classic Gothic church architecture. Built in 1910 of the same gray and black granite featured throughout campus, the Chapel is the architectural icon of West Point. Featuring a classic cross shaped floor plan, the impressive interior space is matched only by the view it’s stone terrace affords over the Hudson River Valley. Light filters through the ornate stained glass work, and central in the glass mosaic are the words “Duty. Honor. Country.” the motto for the USMA. It’s the centerpiece for what is, quite simply, one of the most breathtaking and tradition rich campuses in the country.
We finish our climb up the hill, and file into Michie Stadium as the pre game cadet march on winds down, the neat, gray square formations of future soldiers disband as they take their seats in the East Bleachers. The game kicks off under a deluge, and the slick ball quickly makes things sloppy. On only the second play from scrimmage, Ball State wide receiver Jahwan Edwards coughs up the ball into the hands of the Army defense. The Black Knights promptly march the short 29 yards down the field for an early touchdown. Despite the weather, Army plays a well executed game, managing the inclement weather by controlling the tempo and chewing up an impressive 425 yards of rushing. With each Black Knights touchdown, half a dozen cannon blasts explode from the woods across Lusk Reservoir, the booming report echoing off the water while a trail of blue gray smoke floats out of the splendid fall colors lining the pond.
At halftime, I meet up with my friend Kurt, who arrives sopping in a flimsy plastic poncho and flooded, sleek black loafers. A 1994 USMA graduate, he’s in town for his 20th reunion. While Kurt joined the civilian ranks after his required military service, the leadership skills imparted at West Point have served him (and thousands of others) well, as he has moved on to an extremely successful career in the corporate world. For his classmates that made a career in the military, however, after twenty years of service they are approaching “full bird” colonel status, a reference to the silver eagles that are pinned to a colonel’s uniform – a considerable milestone for an Army officer.
Later, after the third quarter, the cadets host a mascot race on the field, where various cadets dressed in costume compete against one another, presumably for some kind of inter company bragging rights. The “race” ends in a complete melee, as more senior cadets rush down from the stands to trip, tackle, body slam or otherwise impede the racers – all to the delight of the roaring crowd. But Army running back Larry Dixon takes things a bit more seriously, as the senior running back carries the ball 28 times on the day, rumbling for 188 yards and grinding the Ball State defense into a constant retreat. To the delight of the alumni in attendance, Army prevails with a convincing 33-24 that was a far more dominant performance than the final score would belie.
In the end, despite the miserable weather and the missed connection with Bryce, I was still floored by the West Point experience. While the Black Knights may never contend on the national level again, as a pure college football destination West Point ranks among the best. There is simply a unique appeal to atmosphere along the banks of the Hudson River, which, coupled with the history, tradition and seriousness of the school mission, make it a must see for any serious fan of the college game. I for one, can’t wait for a return trip with a few folks that can give me a first hand tour of exactly how special a place the United States Military Academy really is.
Thank you again to Bob for generously providing his season tickets and parking pass for the game, and hopefully next time we can both meet up in West Point when the weather is a little nicer!
Thank you to my friend Kurt for braving the weather and meeting up at halftime! I appreciate all the tips in advance of my visit, and a few more brief history lessons while chatting away in the rain. Always great to catch up!
Thanks again to my father for another year of joining me on this unique adventure, and for keeping a positive spirit despite the lousy weather.
Thank you to my friend Bryce for all the recommendations, and I can’t wait to head back here some time in the near future with you to get the full insider perspective…
Full clickthrough gallery below: